Knowledgebase > Cattle (Beef)

Cattle (Beef)

Last updated 14 October 2017

Beef Cattle – Introduction.

Australia is the second largest exporter of beef in the world and the seventh largest beef producing country1. Almost 70% of beef and veal comes from just two states, Queensland and New South Wales. Beef cattle typically start their lives in grazing paddocks, sometimes with little shelter or shade when the heat is extreme. As a result, approximately 18% don’t survive. For those who do, a third will be taken to feedlots to see out the last 6-to-12 months of their lives before being slaughtered.

Cow Societies

Cows are gentle giants and very much individuals – each displaying their own unique behaviour. They develop social structures within their communities: they hang out in different groups depending on their ranking in the herd, have long memories, and can individually identify up to 70 other herd members2. Sometimes they fight to establish dominance; sometimes they lay down for a nap, often they just like to eat grass. They are maternal animals and build relationships with other members of the herd that are important to them.

A cow has personality as distinct as a dog, with his or her own life and purpose. They have been observed chasing balls and running around just for the fun of it. As they’re kept away from urban areas, most people never get a chance to make meaningful observations and see just how individual and unique each cow is.

Painful procedures performed without compassion

So that the animals can be controlled and labelled, and so they won’t ‘damage’ one another, the subjection of cows starts when they are just babies. Calves are subjected to a variety of painful surgical procedures without anaesthesia. These include castration (physical removal of the testicles), branding with scorching branding irons, and removal of their horns. These things are standard industry practice and there are few legislative instruments on the side of the cow, as each state has their own welfare laws that govern what can and can’t be done to a cow up until she is killed. Given that under law, they are currently viewed merely as a commodity, this is not surprising.

Removing the horns can be done in several different, painful ways. It can be performed by disbudding (horns are removed then cauterised with a hot iron) or dehorning with scoop clippers, extracting the horn and entire root (which is not only painful but can result in a fractured skull).

If the calves aren’t de-horned, they might still have the horns removed later in their short life.  The typical method here is cutting, where a saw cuts off the horns, nerves getting cut along the way, before being cauterised with a hot iron.

As you can imagine, all of these actions create significant pain, trauma and stress for the calves and cows.


A feedlot is a cramped, fenced area where cows are usually given only grain to eat (very unnatural and unhealthy), are unable to exercise, and have often been found knee-deep in their own faeces. Often there’s no shelter for the cows either and regulations don’t mandate shade. Living in these cramped, filthy conditions subjects the cattle to stress and sickness. Sicknesses often found on cattle in feedlots include footrot, botulism, respiratory disease and liver abscesses.

NFAS (National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme) is supposedly there to ensure the welfare of beef cattle however, it only provides ‘guidelines’ around food, water, air quality and heat levels and calling in a vet when required etc. There’s no genuine monitoring around adherence to the scheme and it’s a case of the fox being put in charge of the hen house with MLA (Meat Livestock Australia) being the body working with the feedlot sector to ‘improve welfare’. Aus-Meat Ltd lists the first objective of the NFAS mission as being to ‘enhance the marketing prospects for grain fed beef’3.  

Suffering, Misery and Slaughter

Before arriving at the slaughterhouse, cows are subjected to being cramped onto trucks and transported vast distances without food or water. 48 hours without water is considered acceptable according the DAFFs (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) ‘Animal Welfare, Standards and Guidelines for Land Transport of Livestock’. Not that these are monitored in any meaningful way.

In Australia, after coming off the truck and being left in often cramped holding pens, they are then further traumatised by being forced into the slaughter area (e.g. via electric prodders, or sometimes punched and kicked) where, on the kill-floor, they have a bolt shot into their skull by a captive bolt gun. This will render the cow unconscious as well as cause brain damage to the animal. Alternative non-skull-penetrating guns are also used in some slaughterhouses, which instead will cause concussion before unconsciousness. Then, the cow will have their throat slit before being hung upside-down, the blood draining from their body. For those exported overseas, they are often killed in far slower, more agonising ways.

It should be noted that there have been documented cases where the cow remains conscious as their throat is slit. Further, more than a dozen slaughterhouses in Australia have Government approval to slit the throats of fully-conscious cows to satisfy the religious practices of ‘halal’ and ‘kosher’ slaughter.

Lives cut short - number of cows killed in Australia.

While a cow can live up to 25 years naturally, the average life-span of beef cattle is just 18 months.  The graph below shows how many cattle are killed in Australia for beef. In this instance, from August 2012 to August 2017, with the measurement being in ‘hundreds of thousands’. For example, 633,334 cows were killed for beef production in August, 20174.

Live Export

In addition to the above death-toll, the grisly Live Export trade is responsible for hundreds-of-thousands of cows being crammed onto ships for long journeys, often without sufficient food or water, often in filthy conditions. Many die in transit. As the graph below shows, hundreds of thousands of cattle are sent to their deaths overseas each month. Currently, 55% of exported cows are sent to Indonesia (with Vietnam, Israel, Malaysia and Japan being the other main recipients).5

While the ESCAS (Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System) is supposed to offer some minimal welfare standards (along with control and traceability through the supply chain, plus auditing) it’s been proven ineffective time and again. The system simply has no real jurisdiction as soon as the cattle reach foreign soil. MLA has already proven they have no genuine interest in the welfare of cattle being exported overseas. In 2015, MAL found cattle being killed outside the approved ESCAS abattoirs in Vietnam but didn’t record the tag numbers so these instances couldn’t be traced back to the exporters6.


  1. RSPCA Knowledge Base [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 2 October, 2017].
  2. Farm Animal Behaviour and Welfare, by A.F. Fraser and D.M. Broom, 1990. ISBN 0851991602 [UNAVAILABLE ONLINE]
  3. Aus-Meat NFAS – Feedlot Assurance NFAS Mission, Australia [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 8 October, 2017].
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics Livestock and meat, Australia [ONLINE] Available at:[email protected]/mf/7218.0.55.001 [Accessed 7 October, 2017].
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics Livestock Products, Australia [ONLINE] Available at:[email protected]/Latestproducts/7215.0Main%20Features2Jun%202017?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=7215.0&issue=Jun%202017&num=&view= [Accessed 7 October, 2017].
  6. ABC News ABC Rural, Australia [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 8 October 2017].

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